Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA’s newest rocket successfully completed a brief test flight Wednesday, the first step in a back-to-the-moon program that could yet be shelved by the White House.
The 327-foot Ares I-X rocket resembled a giant white pencil as it shot into the sky, delayed a day by poor weather.
Nearly twice the height of the spaceship it’s supposed to replace — the shuttle — the skinny experimental rocket carried no passengers or payload, only throwaway ballast and hundreds of sensors. The flight cost $445 million.
NASA said the flight was a tremendous success, based on early indications.
“Oh, man. Well, how impressive is that,” said Jeff Hanley, manager of NASA’s space frontier program, known as Constellation. “You’ve accomplished a great step forward for exploration,” he told launch controllers.
It was the first time in nearly 30 years that a new rocket took off from Kennedy Space Center. Columbia made the maiden voyage for the shuttle fleet back in 1981.
Liftoff, in fact, occurred 48 years and one day after the first launch of a Saturn rocket, a precursor to what carried astronauts to the moon during the Apollo program. The Saturn V moon rockets were the tallest ever built, an impressive 363 feet.
Wednesday’s launch, three years in the making, represented the first step in NASA’s effort to return astronauts to the moon. The White House, though, is re-evaluating the human spaceflight program and may dump Ares I in favor of another type of rocket and possibly another destination.
The test flight attracted a large crowd.
The prototype moon rocket took off through a few clouds from a former shuttle launch pad at 11:30 a.m., 3 1/2 hours late because of bad weather. Launch controllers had to retest the rocket systems after more than 150 lightning strikes were reported around the pad overnight. Then they had to wait out interfering rain clouds, the same kind that thwarted Tuesday’s try.